Women, Corporate Hierarchy, Authority and Influence

It's been an interesting fortnight for me re: job-related insights. I'm writing today about a flash of interconnectedness that I experienced while reading this excellent article: Talent Management - It's a Man's World. Read it all. I don't know if this mag is on your Google Reader, but I recommend it for unvarnished insights into, well, Talent Management.

Last week, my boss insisted that our whole group read an HBR paper on Self-Directed Teams, specifically focused on Gore-Tex. I read the paper with attention and wrote him a note that pointed out that what might seem radical in the context of an insurance company is not uncommon in a partnership or a playground. Or a woman-owned business (Though I confess I did not say that last one.)

I used to be in charge of a company, so I have a lot of confidence about my business methods, work processes. I know I get things done. I've hired and partnered with people, men, who have very different work methods, and I respect those methods as they respected mine. But they're not the same. And our company was stronger because it included both styles.

"How are you at influence management?" was the first question in my first interview here ten years ago, and I went home and told my husband that it looked like I'd be having responsibility without authority.

I accomplish a great deal, even here. And I do it through an informal network of people (now that I think about it, mostly women and broad-minded men). who get things done. Frenemies. Associates. Emotional bank account customers. We bitch about the injustice of it all, the cage of hierarchy, but we can leverage it because the people who don't participate in this type of working method have no idea what's going on with it. They can't see what you're doing. I'm often told I need to communicate about what I'm going more, yet it does seem like everyone already knows what I'm doing. So what is meant here? Create more powerpoints?

No, I don't want to communicate more into channels that will shut me down. I need to choose who knows what I'm doing. I steal labor to get things done -- maybe I should be stopped.

I used to consult for these companies -- I always wondered why they suffered such "just do it" blockages. Now I understand it all so much better.

When I came to my first year-end, I was told to write up my performance against my goals. I said, "What goals?" and my colleague looked aghast -- "shame on you for not having goals!" he said (He actually said that. I'm very fond of him, even now). I know he knew about my accomplishments over that year, but apparently, those didn't matter as much as the matching of them with the previously approved goals. Of course, that makes a lot of sense -- but it doesn't diminish the accomplishments. Well, apparently it does. What did they think I did? Tripped over my successes? Found them in the woods?

Women who do get stripes, well, that's a whole other interesting story. When I was in communications, I was several times sent to newly promoted female vice presidents (well, twice, but that's a big percentage of the times it happened, like 100%) to provide executive coaching in communications. With both, I said, "I don't know how you did it, but my communications advice is this -- keep it up." In both cases, I was given private instructions by HR to help them "soften their edge," or some such odd instruction that looked like, "Tell them not to be so bitchy." I told them that I had been asked to pass the message along and then we would spend the next hour talking about communications situations and laughing. It's a whole other world, guys.

When readership of our Company Newsletter fell off, the editor asked me to write a sassy anonymous column to attract readers. I wrote about the things we're not supposed to talk about, like how limiting it is to have to work with nice but ineffective people, providing advice as to how to do it without damaging your deliverables. How to sidestep time-wasting meetings, etc. etc. There was always a lot to write about (see the tag "Raven Maven" for some samples). Here's the thing -- I was writing about the other work universe, the influence side -- saying what anyone who accomplishes things without stripes already knows. Oh, and it infuriated some top executives -- they would call the VP of the organization that published the newsletter -- at his home, late at night, after reading the latest column and insist that all copies of the newsletters be rounded up and destroyed. Huge passion. There were three guys in particular who bullied him to cut it out. However, the column succeeded at its objectives and he got more credit for that than the late-night apoplexy cases could cause him damage. Mostly because they couldn't quite explain what was wrong with the point of view of the column. It just made them mad.

"Need to know" orientated people really freak out when you toss around "maybe's" -- I've learned to see the signs in a meeting and to stop as soon as I see it. These people get so uncomfortable -- they see the hideous risks, they are sure that you intend to start in on this big scary idea right away, they start scrambling to create distance, seeing a disaster looming. I get labeled as someone who creates unnecessary complexity, and I think it's mostly because I like to talk through a lot of possibilities before we make a final decision and get started. A lot of people like this approach, but others, not so much. And since the environment supports their point of view and not mine, it's really unlikely that they'll ever see the value of the discussion. So okay. I keep my mouth shut around them.

My husband hates it when we run into colleagues because they always seem to say something like, "I really like working with Abby -- she's always so honest, she always says what she's thinking, she doesn't hesitate to do what she knows is right." and he's terrified. I sound like an idiot savant, a holy fool. And I have to spend the rest of the weekend assuring him that I'm not actively trying to get fired.

Oh, and I love the stuff that says that women don't get raises and promotions because they don't ask for them. I ask you. A womanly orientation to work would find out what the answer was going to be before spending the emotional capital in asking. So maybe they don't ask because they know the answer will be "No" rather than the other way around. I certainly ask a lot and I've never heard anything but "No." But I do it to tease, I'm afraid. I've made my peace with it. I tell my boss that the situation offers great scope for spiritual growth. But really, women doesn't get promoted as much because they'll still get the work done without the authority -- and everyone knows this, even if it's not conscious knowledge. The company would be fiscally irresponsible to pay more money for labor when it didn't have to. But really, it isn't fair. And I do think and know that women leave the workforce or suffer anguish or anger because of it. It costs. It just doesn't cost the company.

I encourage all high-performing women to look into Buddhism. It really helps ease the sting.

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